"The Situation" II - Tokyo

...what if a government is hindered from governing?

Minae Mizumura is a Tokyo-based novelist and critic. Three of her books, all of which have won major literary awards in Japan, have been translated into English: A True Novel, Inheritance from Mother, and The Fall of Language in the Age of English (the last including an account of her experience with language politics at IWP). Another English translation of her semi-autobiographical work, An I-Novel, will come out in February 2021.


The global pandemic brought to the fore the responsibility of each nation state as a unit of governance. How is a particular government working to contain the pandemic? Is it doing its best to avoid becoming another epicenter?

But what if a government is hindered from governing?

When a much-awaited state of emergency was finally declared on April 7th in Japan, many Japanese, including myself, were shocked and dismayed. We found out for the first time that, hampered by our Constitution, the Japanese government can only “ask” people to stay home. It can only “ask” pachinko parlors to close. No punitive measures such as fine or imprisonment can be taken against those who do not comply.

We had always known that our Constitution, drafted under the supervision of the American occupation forces, does not allow us to wage war. We were told to be proud of this Constitution from an early age, and dared not question it for the past seventy-three years, making it the longest unamended constitution in the world. We had not known until now that, in order supposedly to warrant our civil liberties, it also does not allow our elected government to “command” us to behave in certain ways, even in a time of emergency. In other words, we had not known that it actually makes light of our civil liberties by ignoring a fundamental principle: an ultimate expression of our freedom resides in our willingness and ability to set a limit to our own freedom.

Some good may eventually come out of this crisis. The pandemic might finally make us Japanese realize that our Constitution is not god-given—only American-given. It might awaken us from a long stupor which has prevented us from thinking by ourselves.

April 28, 2020